The world system we know today was born in a time roughly from the mid-14th to mid-17th centuries. We understand them as a time when the world came out of the “Dark Ages” into the Renaissance, when the light was breaking through. In truth, writes Fabian Scheidler, it was a time of unprecedented violence in Europe, of wars across the landscape culminating in the genocide of the indigenous of the Americas.
“ . . . why does the early modern period come across as the new era of progress and humanism (?) . . . The reason for cultivating this myth is obvious: it is crucial to the West’s narrative of being the bearer of progress throughout the history of mankind. But what if our present system was actually built on a nightmare, born of naked violence and sheer despair? . . . What if civilization did not make progress, but systematized barbarism instead?”
It is that system which threatens to plunge the world into final nightmares as we confront the consequences, of warfare and ecological destruction. “ . . . we must thoroughly question the foundations of our economy, our state and much more,” Scheidler writes in his recent work, The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization.
The central drive to accumulate capital
The system, or the Megamachine as Scheidler calls it, consolidated with the restoration of coin taxation, which under Rome and empires preceding it allowed the formation of standing armies. Mercenaries would provide kings the power to put down peasant revolts. Funded by Italian bankers, mercenary armies roamed Europe, consolidating it as a war economy during the Hundred Years War, which actually lasted from 1337-1453.
The invention of the cannon around 1450 drove the economic requirements of warfare much higher. States were driven to accumulate capital to compete. That flipped the emphasis from earlier empires such as Rome and China, the central goal of which was to consolidate state power. In Europe, instead the system became driven by the rationale of endless capital accumulation. The need for capital to build war machines drove wars to re-pay debt in an endless circle. In fact, the brutal colonization of the Americas and enslavement of populations to mine precious metals was driven by the need to pay bankers.
The infrastructure of capital accumulation was created in those centuries. The invention of double entry bookkeeping in 14th century Italy, with its sharp quantification of profit and loss, focused unlimited accumulation as a goal in itself. The authoritarian state was consolidated through draconian poor laws forcing people to work, the Inquisition and religious persecution, which actually intensified compared to the “Dark Ages.” Witch trials proliferated, notably in areas where greatest economic stress was causing peasant revolts.
Then in 1602, the first modern corporation was created, the Dutch East India Company, through which the state provided two vital guarantees. One was practical immortality. No longer would accumulation cease with the death of the individual, but be perpetuated institutionally over generations. The second was limited liability. Shareholders would only be liable for their own holdings in the corporation. The remainder of their wealth would be protected. These were revolutionary developments at the time.
Replacing the organic with the mechanical
Through these centuries, the intellectual infrastructure of the Megamachine was also created in philosophies of absolute control. The rise of machines such as clocks caused thinkers to interpret the world as a machine. Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes became philosophers of the mechanism. “They claimed that even living beings were nothing more than automatons, a radical break from earlier worldviews that perceived nature as a living organism.”
To Descartes, the body was a machine controlled by thought. To Hobbes, society was a machine, a “war of all against all” to be controlled by superior power, a “Leviathan.” Their claim that “the principles of mechanical laws also applied to the realm of living things . . . amounted to one of the most momentous epistemological errors in human history.” That nature could contain the non-determinable and spontaneous was rejected. With that, by implication, came the denial of self-organization in favor of hierarchical control.
In that context, what could be measured and quantified took precedence over other forms of knowledge, including the actual perceptions of individuals. Humans would fade into invisibility before abstract structures. Mapping would simplify the complex landscape of the peasantry to allow control and standardization. Forests would be replaced with standardized plantings that would suffer dieback because they did not replicate the biological systems needed to support them. Land registries and urban planning would allow kings to gain power over cities. Work was shaped noy by the spontaneous interplay of activities in community, but by the clock. Schools were shaped, not by curiosity, but by rote learning to condition people to accept control.
The pattern in all of this was a replacement of the organic with the mechanical. “The complex structure of meaning in the relationships upon which community life is based was replaced by machine-like chains of command and obedience. The vanishing point of this development is s society striving exclusively for an infinite increase in the production of goods, and in the process, wiping out everything that does not serve this purpose.”
The Capitalocene emerges
Thus, even before the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 1700s, the fundamental elements of the Megamachine had been put in place. “Long before the Industrial Revolution, the military, educators, manufacturers and scientists dreamed of such a thoroughly machine-organized society,” Scheidler writes. “But they lacked one thing to make this dream a reality – fuel.”
That is where the story of the coming of the modern megamachine merges with our own world. Coal had long been known to be an energy source, and the principles of the steam engine had been known since antiquity. But it took until the 1700s for these two key drivers of the Industrial Revolution to be deployed on a mass basis. Scheidler ascribes this to the growth of the money economy, the need for capital to seek ever expanding investment opportunities. For this reason, though our time is often called the Anthropocene, Scheidler describes it as the Capitalosene, because the fundamental driver is not people or technology, “but rather the dynamics of endless capital accumulation.”
By the 1700s, a capitalist culture had been created. The Protestant Reformation, notably through John Calvin and his followers, had twisted the original message of the Christian gospels with their preference for the poor to the opposite. The sign of salvation was wealth and prosperity. The universal mission to convert the world inherited from Roman Christianity became a gospel of wealth. States played a key role with their drive to maintain military superiority through capital accumulation.
But energy was a limiting factor. Wood, water, wind and muscle power, human and animal, were largely played out in Europe by the 1700s. A new, theoretically unlimited source of energy would be needed to foster unlimited capital accumulation. It was coal. A technological cycle developed. Though coal had been mined in England for heat, it was mostly from shallow seams. Mining deeper seams required pumping out water, and for that the steam engine was developed. To transport coal from the limited locations it was found, rail transport exploded from the mine itself to spread across the countryside.
That created another self-reinforcing cycle. It required capital accumulation to invest in mines, railways and factories. At the same time, “it was only fossil energy that could enable the exponential expansion of production necessary for permanently profitable investments and the continued accumulation of capital. The solar energy that had been stored up in coal for millions of years allowed the economic system to surge past the natural limits it had reached – at least for the time being.”
This first appeared on The Raven.